The gaming playlists on Spotify. The annual Game Music Festival. Game Audio Awards. That’s how the musical A-side of the game industry looks like. But in the beginning there was just a silence. And mute moving pictures. Doesn’t it sound like the beginning of… the cinematography which is actually quite close to the gamedev?

In the beginning there was just a silence.

In the dark room at the entrance to the year 1895 the Lumière brothers are showing the first movie in history. For another three decades film shows are supported by the music bands playing live – like in the theatre, the musicians create the peculiar sound design. But only in 1927 the world meets The Jazz Singer which effectively and physically combines film with sound into the one complete work. And then we have great awards and great composers (like John Williams or Hanz Zimmer), who become the superstars themselves and get more Oscars than poor Leonardo DiCaprio.

More or less, that’s the point of the game music history we are at now. But the beginning was much more modest. This is the start of 70’s. The Beatles don’t play with each other anymore, even on the rooftop of the Abbey Road Studio. The bell-bottoms walk proudly on the streets. The man has come back from the Moon recently. And Atari launches their first arcade and console games. In 1972 there’s the breakthrough Pong on the board. Simple, black-and-white pixels and sporadic sound signals – everything is the same as the contemporary technology: a bit experimental. Pong is developed quite accidently – as a training exercise for the new Atari engineer, Allan Alcorn. The owners of the company – Messrs. Bushell and Dabney – are impressed enough to launch the game.

Where did game music come from — minimalism, pt. 1

Three months before the premiere they ask Alcorn to add some sound effects to the production. They want the game to be more than just a mute picture – they want it to engage players also with a sound. That’s why while striking a ball, winning or losing we hear monophonic signals made by the video signal generator. The sound is synchronized with what we see – that’s “Mickey Mousing” known from the Disney cartoons and borrowed from Wagner’s operas even earlier. But how to do that in video games in 1972? Such a digital pearl doesn’t fit in the space taken up by the game itself.

Alcorn, like an experimental musician, finds that the sync generator creates different tones. He buys Hitachi black-and-white television set for 75$. He places it into a cabinet and connects it with the integrated circuit. That’s how the engineer becomes one of the first composers in video games history. And that’s just a start. Looking musically, 1975 cracks the decade in a half. That’s when Taito for the first time throws the theme music based on chiptune into their shooter Gun Fight. The chiptune will later define not only the entire generation of video games, but even its own music genre, heavily influencing the electronic stage.

Already in 1978 the Japanese electro-pop band Yellow Orchestra uses some samples from Gun Fight in their song “Computer Game”. The same year Atari blasts off Space Invaders on the Texas Instruments SN76477 sound chip. The background – still not musical, but sonic – is made with the four chromatic looped bass notes – standardly in the heart rate (60 BPM). But their tempo increase along with a level of difficulty and emotions – that’s probably the first usage of psychoacoustics in video games.

Beverly Reynolds

Let’s skip to the cusp of 70’s and 80’s. Freddie has moustache. Walkmans walk down the streets. And consoles have the second generation games – with colours and sounds. Pac-Man’s monophony is heard from the game machines. It’s powered by the 3-channel Waveform Sound Generator – Namco’s own technology. And it’s everywhere, because the simple arcade game eats 4 billion quarter dollars in only one year and becomes the first game superstar in pop culture. All sounds are created by Toshio Kai (graphic designer) and Shigeichi Ishimura (programmer) – the first one composes, the second one implements. Thanks to them good-natured Pac-Man devours the players both, the varied gameplay (each of the hunting ghost has its own strategy) and chiptune sounds. Although the whole soundtrack lasts ca. 20 seconds, the simple opening theme or “waaka-waaka” remain legendary until today.

The games slowly speed up, but compared to the next decade, it’s still the Wild West.

However, that’s not Pac-Man, but a bit less timeless Rally-X – realised by Namco a few months later – is regarded as the first game with a musical soundtrack. This time the sound is based not on the tone generator, but on the digital-analogue converter (DAC). It allows to create many variations using a meagre amount of signals. Taito doesn’t give up and realises Stratovox the same year. It’s the arcade shooter with a voice synthesizer used for the first time. For example, the player shooting to aliens hears heavily distorted “Help me! Help me!” or “Very good!”, depending on what is going on. The games slowly speed up, but compared to the next decade, it’s still the Wild West. What lies ahead in the further part of 80’s?

Read more:


Maciej Baska

In the games he happens to stand around at a random location only because there is a great music. For over a decade he's composed, written, recorded and mixed.